Category: Reading Posts

Weekly Tuesday posts on some aspect of my reading.

Articles I Read – Week of 24 February 2019

We’re over the colds that ran through the family last week, but I spent a lot of the week catching up so things were mostly quiet here on the blog again. Hopefully things will be back to normal this week. Here are the articles I read this week, which took me through 34 consecutive days of my article-a-day experiment:

Note: bold titles are recommended. An asterisk (*) indicates a subscription may be required to read the article online.

What I Read in February 2019

I was back to my normal reading pace in February and it came as a relief. Of course, I didn’t have a video game sucking up hours of my time like I did last month.

I finished 14 books in February:

Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (#855)

Cover for Henry David Thoreau: A Life

I’ve had an on-again, off-again fascination with Thoreau. His experiment on Walden Pond is one part of it, but I am always fascinated by prodigious journals, and Thoreau’s is certainly that. So I decided to give Henry David Thoreau: A Life a shot. In the introduction to the book, Walls said that her focus was on Thoreau as a writer, but I felt that Thoreau as a philosopher and Transcendentalist was the real focus. I would have liked to know more about Thoreau’s writing habits, and how he went about creating his remarkable journal.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau (#856)

Cover for Walking

An example of the butterfly effect of reading in action. Having finished the Thoreau biography, I wanted to read his piece on Walking. I thought it would be a mediation on the wilderness and hiking, but it was something else entirely. I kind of wish it was what I had hoped it would be.

Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII by Chester Nez (#857)

Cover for Code Talker

I knew of the Navajo code talkers of World War, but didn’t understand the role they played and how their code was unbreakable. Chester Nez’s fabulous book Code Talkers changed that. Nez writes with clarity about his experiences before, during, and after the war, and especially about his role as a code talker. This was a good read.

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin (#858)

Cover for Wild Bill

Last year, I read Tom Clavin’s book on Dodge City and enjoyed it. So when I saw he had a book coming out on Wild Bill, I couldn’t wait to read it. I wasn’t disappointed either. I’m not sure where my fascination with the old west comes from, but I suspect it is the same part of me that desires open spaces, isolation, and what seems to be a simpler life.

Reading Clavin’s biography of Wild Bill, I was startled and amused to learn that at least some parts of the HBO series Deadwood had some basis in fact. Not just Wild Bill either, but even Al Swearengen. I would have sworn he was a made up character.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (#859)

Cover for Into Thin Air

I read and enjoyed Krakauer’s Into the Wild so it seemed natural for me to read more Krakauer at some point. Into Thin Air is on Sports Illustrated’s 100 Best Sports Books of All Time list, and as that is one of the lists that I am slowly making my way through, I thought I’d give it a try.

It was an outstanding read. I shivered at the descriptions of cold at the summit of Everest, and was horrified and awed by the tragedy that took place there. Reading the book made me wonder why some people go to extremes like these, but of course, I know why. It’s what we do, it’s how we grow.

Growing Up by Russell Baker (#860)

Cover for Growing Up

I read about the passing of Russell Baker in the New York Times, but knew very little about him. I think it was Pamela Paul who mentioned his memoir, Growing Up, and as I am fascinated by journalists, I thought I’d give it go.

I enjoyed the book, but it was one case where the title was right on the money: it was about Baker’s youth and his growing up. It ended just when I thought it was really getting interesting. Fortunately, I learned that he wrote additional memoirs and I already obtained a copy of The Good Times and am looking forward to finishing it.

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (#861)

Cover for The Good Neighbor

I grew up watching Mister Rogers but knew very little about Fred Rogers. The Good Neighbor had been floating around my to-read list for a while, and I finally tackled it. It was fantastic, well written and researched, and just a joy to read.

After finishing the book, I put on an episode of Mister Rogers for my 2-year-old–a little girl used to watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and all kinds of things on YouTube. Later that same day, she had asked to watch more, and by that evening, all three of my kids were sitting around watching episodes of Mister Rogers.

The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror by George Beahm (#862)

Cover for The Stephen King Companion

I had a short trip to Pittsburgh in February. It’s a four hour drive from my house, and I used that trip to listen to The Stephen King Companion, not really sure what to expect. I was surprised and delighted by the book, which turned out to be a well-researched literary biography of Stephen King. The 8 eight hours I spent on the road (four there, and four back) flew by in a blink thanks to this book. And as you will see, the book also pushed me to finally read and finish several of King’s books that I hadn’t been able to get through in the past.

Insomnia by Stephen King (#863)

Cover for Insomnia

I started reading Insomnia two or three times over the last decade, and never managed to get very far into the story. I can’t explain why, although I wrote some thoughts on the subject. But after reading the Stephen King Companion, I decided to give it a go, and this time, I did manage to finish the book.

I wouldn’t consider it one of King’s better books, but it was entertaining, and its ties to the Dark Tower made it that much more interesting for me.

Lisey’s Story by Stephen King (#864)

Cover for Lisey's Story

Lisey’s Story is another of King’s books that I struggled to get through the first three or four times I tried. I think I managed to get halfway at one point before giving up. This time, I read the whole book, and was satisfied with it. It was better than Insomnia, but still not top shelf King in my opinion (although I know King has often stated that this is his personal favorite, and I can understand why).

Duma Key by Stephen King (#865)

Cover for Duma Key

Duma Key was far and away the big surprise for me. I think I tried reading it one other time, but didn’t get very far. This time, I could barely put it down (I was also sick at the time, and mostly staying in bed). Of the three King books I read immediately after the Companion, this was was by far my favorite.

The Green Mile by Stephen King (#866)

Cover for The Green Mile

During the last full week in February, the whole family took turns being sick. That, coupled with a snow day or two kept us mostly in the house. When I am sick, I mostly don’t want to do anything, but I often do want a good story. So even thought I’d read it once before, I returned to The Green Mile and got the good story that I was hoping for.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (#867)

Cover for Doctor Sleep

After The Green Mile my thirst for good stories was no slaked. I’d read Doctor Sleep when it first came out in 2013, but thought I’d give it another go and see how it held up. This is one of those books that like a good leftover lasagna, is better the second time around. I absolutely loved it on the second read.

Revival by Stephen King (#868)

Cover for Revival

Of course, not all left overs are as good the second time around. I’d read Revival when it first came out, and decided to give it another read. I remembered that the ending was particularly frightening, but couldn’t recall the specifics. I think the first half of the book is very good, but it kind of palls until that terrifying ending

What’s on tap for March? Right now I’m in one of those “I can’t figure out what to read next” phases. There’s the Russel Baker memoir, and I have an ARC of Jack McDevitt’s latest Alex Benedict novel, Octavia Gone on my desk. Baseball season is starting up and I often turn to classics in the baseball realm for fodder. I have a newish biography of Babe Ruth that I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I just need to get past this initial hiccup, and then let the butterfly effect of reading take over.

Articles I Read – Week of 17 February 2019

I started the week in New York visiting family, and with one kid sick with whatever is going around. I ended the week sick myself for a few days, with a couple sick kids on the mend, and several inches of snow in between. So things have been a little quiet here on the blog this week. But I still managed to keep up with my article-a-day reading. Here’s what I read this week:

Note: a * next to a magazine indicates a subscription may be required to read the full article online.

The In-Between Books

Over the years I have developed a pretty good sense about which books will interest me and which won’t. I don’t like wasting much time on a book that I can’t get into, and have learned to give up on them pretty quickly. Of course, there are those books that pull me right in, fiction or nonfiction, and I am lost, and don’t want to stop reading.

Then there are the in-between books. These are book that I my finely-honed sense of what I will like tells me that I will like a book, and then gets erratic, like a compass caught in a magnetic field. These books puzzle me because they are interesting, and they generally do hook me, but I have a hard time making it through them, and often give up, only to return to them again and again.

These in-between books have been on my mind lately because I’ve recently tackled two of them. The first was Stephen King’s Insomnia. I think I started that book three or four times and never made it through–until last week. I had read The Stephen King Companion by George Beahm while on a road trip for work, and it once again brought Insomnia to mind. I decided once and for all that I would tackle it–and I finally did. It was an okay book. Not the among King’s top tier, but it kept me interested and entertained and I was glad to have made it all the way through it.

Finally finishing Insomnia gave me the courage to tackle another in-between book by Stephen King: Lisey’s Story. For a time (I don’t know if this is still the case) this novel was King’s personal favorite. Several friends told me how much they enjoyed the book. On three separate occasions, I have tried to get through the book, once making it nearly halfway before giving up. It looks like I’ll finally finish that one, too, later today.

Lisey's Story

There have been other in-between books: I’ve made it halfway through The Count of Monte Cristo twice, but have never gotten any farther. I’ve started Dan Simmons’s The Abominable three times, fascinated by the meta-fictional prologue to the book–but never made it more than a third of the way through that one, either.

In-between books are rare for me, and that is a good thing. What bothers me most about in-between books is that I get the sneaking suspicion that in these cases, the problem that prevents me from finishing is not the book, but me. As I have said, there are books that draw me in, and books that I know won’t interest me. Each case is fairly clear-cut. But with the in-between books, the typically do draw me in, and yet I am incapable of making it through the book. As I make my way through Lisey’s Story, I am beginning to think that is because I need to be in the right frame of mind, and carry around the right set of experiences before attempting these books. This gives me hope that I will, eventually, make it through other in-between books I have encountered in the past, and will encounter in the future.

Articles I Read – Week of 10 Feb 2019

A lot of driving this week. I had to drive to Pittsburgh for work on Wednesday and then back home on Thursday. Yesterday we drove up to New York for the long weekend. I still managed to read an article each day and my backlog of magazines has been shrinking nicely, just as the March magazines have started to roll in. Here are the articles I read this week:

Six Years of Audiobooks

I finished my very first audiobook, Misery by Stephen King (narrated by Lindsay Crouse) on February 23, 2013. I was thinking of this yesterday because it’s been just about six years since that first audiobook, and a strange thing happened.

I was in the carpool lane at my kids’ school sitting in the rain and waiting for the kinds to emerge from the building. I was listening to an audiobook, of course, The Stephen King Companion by George Beahm–a remarkable book for any Stephen King fan–and happened to glance at the Audible app to see how much time I’d listened so far. I accidentally clicked on the Total tab instead Daily tab, and this is what I saw:

Audible Listening Time

I happened to glance at the app just as I hit 6 months of listening time. In my head, I immediately thought back to when I started, and realized that it was February 2013–six years. I had spent a full half year out of the last 6 years doing nothing but listening to audiobooks. Put another way, since February 2013, 2 hours of my day each and every day are spent listening to audiobooks.

When you have been blogging as long as I have (since late 2005, with well over 6,000 posts to show for it), you are bound to see changes. I’m often amused by a post I wrote in 2012 where I claimed, unequivocally, that audiobooks were not for me. It turns out that audiobooks freed me up in more ways than one.

From January 1996 to mid-February 2013, a span of 17 years, I read 501 books, or about 29 books a year on average. From mid-February 2013 to right down to the present moment, a span of 6 years, I read 360 books, or about 51 books a year. Of those 360 books, 318 were audiobooks.

I’ve long since given up the debate on whether or not reading or listening to an audiobook amounted to the same thing. I think they do, and that satisfies me. (Abridgments, on the other hand…) Audiobooks have allowed me to read far more than I could before. In part this is because I can multitask while I listen to a book, with varying degrees of success depending upon what I am doing and what I am reading. In part this is because I’ve learned to listen at increasingly faster speeds. The book I’m listening to now is playing at 1.75x speed, for example.

But the availability of audiobooks have allowed me to branch out to things I might not otherwise try. (I read William Manchester’s three volume biography of Winston Churchill, for instance, which I might not have done were it not available as an audiobook and I could listen to it while walking and exercising.)

Whereas I naively complained in 2012 that I preferred my own internal voice to that of any voice actor, I have found that some narrators add a dimension to a book that pushes it over the top. Craig Wasson did this for Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I will seek out narrators and often find books I might not have read because I enjoy the narrator so much.

There are still some areas where audiobooks have problems. It’s not easy to highlight passages in an audiobook. Over time, I’ve learned that if I want to take notes on an audiobook, I’ll usually have the e-book edition (or a paper edition) handy to mark up alongside the audio version.

It was pretty amazing to see that total time roll over to 6 months. I suspect it won’t take me another 6 years to get to 12 months, however. The pace of my reading has picked up, thanks to audiobooks. Last year I read 130 books, more than doubling the number of books I read in any prior year going back to 1996. I expect to read at least 100 books this year. That’s an average of about 140 hours of listening time each month, or 1,680 hours of listening time each year. At that rate, it will only take me about 2-1/2 years before I reach 12 month of listening time. Check back with me in August 2021 and let’s see how close I come.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when I was little. As a child of the 1970s, I can recall sitting our family room in front of a television (one that you tuned by turning knobs and for which an occasional visit from a television repairman was required) watching Sesame Street, Electric Company, and, of course, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It was delightful, therefore, to read Maxwell King’s biography of Fred Rogers, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

I was surprised to learn things about Fred Rogers that I never knew: he came from a wealthy family, with a strong sense of giving back to the community; he was musically gifted; he attended Dartmouth for a time. He was an almost unwilling celebrity, and nearly everyone who knew him said that he really was like the way he was on his television program. Kids were not seeing a persona, but the real man. It was amazing to learn all of the people he influenced over the years. David McCullough–author of my favorite biography, John Adams–has called Fred Rogers the greatest teacher of the 20th century.

I’ve sat here for several minutes trying to recall what I thought of the show when I was three or four years old, but the memories are vague and blurry. I can remember watching the show. I can remember being a little afraid of some of the puppets on the show. But I also remember I loved the trolley.

King’s book talks about how Rogers deliberately slowed down the pace of his show, taking his time, because he was concerned about the programming kids were getting, everything so face-paced. Things have only gotten faster. My own kids watched shows like Chuggington and Cayou when they were very little. They never got into Sesame Street. About the closest any of my kids came to Mister Rogers was my youngest daughter, now 2-1/2 years old, who loves Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

When I read something, I often take notes, jotting things in the margins, or copying passages into my journal/commonplace book. I try to apply what I learn from my reading in practical ways. After finishing The Good Neighbor, I had a desire to do that. My kids are all of a generation where videos need to be fast-paced to grab attention. I wondered what it would be like for them to sit down and watch an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Could they even sit through one?

I doubted my older kids could, but yesterday afternoon, I took my 2-year-old upstairs and we put on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1971. Then I sat back and waited to see if she’d tolerate it.

She loved it. She recognized some of the songs, of course, from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. She was a little perplexed to see the Daniel Tiger puppet–which doesn’t much resemble the cartoon character. But she followed along with the program just fine. I watched the show, too, flashing back to my own youth, but also keeping an eye on my daughter’s delight.

This morning, after we took the older kids to school, my youngest said, “Daddy, can I watch a show when we get home?” This is her usual question after drop-off.

I had to work so I told her she could watch a show until her nanny arrived. “What do you want to watch?”

I expected her to saySuper Why or Daniel Tiger, or “YouTube!” What she said was, “Can I watch Mr. Rogers?”

It made me feel that I had some how leveled up on this whole parenting thing.

Articles I Read – Week of 3 Feb 2019

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I was going to start reading one article a day to better keep up with all of the magazines I subscribe to. Two weeks in, I thought it might be interesting to list out the articles I ended up reading each week, with links if they are available online, and perhaps an occasional comment. Here, then, are the articles I read the week of 3 February 2019. Bold titles indicate articles I particularly enjoyed.

  • 2/3/2019 – “Solo” by Mark Synnot, National Geographic, Feb. 2019. Alex Honnold attempts a free solo climb of El Capitan.
  • 2/4/2019 – “Guardians of the Tiger People” by Adam Piore, Scientific American, Feb. 2019. How people and technology are protecting uncontacted tribes in Peru. (Requires subscription to read online article.)
  • 2/5/2019 – “A Town In Between” by Joyce Kryszak, Down East, Dec. 2018. A profile of Lubec, Maine.
  • 2/6/2019 – “An Unthinkable Sacrifice” by Kristen Romey, National Geographic, Feb. 2019. Archeologists discover some of the largest caches of child human sacrifice. (May require a subscription to read online article.)
  • 2/7/2019 – “The Real Roots of American Rage” by Charles Duhigg, Atlantic, Jan-Feb 2019. A long piece on the pros and cons of anger in society.
  • 2/8/2019 – “American Rhapsody” by Jeff Macgregor, Smithsonian, Nov 2018. A profile of some of the last nature grassland in Kansas.
  • 2/9/2019 – “Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk” by Charles Duhigg, WIRED, Feb. 2019. A profile of Elon Musk’s recent quirky behavior at Tesla.

A Study of History

Yesterday’s mail brought Volumes 2 and 3 of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. I now have the first 4 of the 12 volumes that make up the series. These books have not been easy to find. The original hardcover editions can go for hundreds of dollars. I was lucky to find paperback editions from 1962. I wasn’t sure what condition they’d be in when they arrived, but it turns out all four volumes are in good condition.

With the first four volumes in hand, I think it is safe for me to start reading them. This will be a slow process for several reasons. First, I usually read more than one book at a time, giving preference to whatever book I’m listening to on Audible. Only when I hit my target listening time each day do I feel okay with turning to whatever I happen to be reading in paper or e-book form. Given how much I depend on audiobooks these days, I don’t always have much time left for anything else.

Second, these are dense books, with small print. On some pages, the footnotes (even smaller print) take up most of the page. Then, too, as I’ve discovered by reading the first few pages last night, Toynbee’s style of writing is very different (and somewhat more convoluted) than Will Durant’s. All of this forces me to slow down as I read in order to take in as much as I can along the way.

The series of books is laid out as follows (bold items are ones that I have in my possession at the time of this writing):

  1. Introduction – The Geneses of Civilizations, Part One (1934)
  2. The Geneses of Civilizations, Part 2 (1934)
  3. The Growths of Civilizations (1934)
  4. The Breakdown of Civilizations (1939)
  5. The Disintegrations of Civilizations, Part One (1939)
  6. The Disintegrations of Civilizations, Part Two (1939)
  7. (A) Universal States; (B) Universal Churches (two separate volumes in the paperback edition) (1954)
  8. Heroic Ages – Contacts Between Civilizations in Space (Encounters Between Contemporaries) (1954)
  9. Contacts Between Civilizations in Time (Renaissances) – Law and Freedom in History – The Prospects of Western Civilization (1954)
  10. The Inspirations of History (1954)
  11. Historical Atlas and Gazetteer (1959)
  12. Reconsiderations (1961)

I figure that by the time I finish reading Volume 4, enough time will have passed to allow me to located relatively affordable paperback editions of the remaining eight books.

Why read a history text published so long ago? One might as well ask why read Gibbon. I can think of three reasons that make sense to me.

  1. I’m fascinated by lifelong efforts like this. I read and enjoyed Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time (6 volumes that spanned more than 30 years). I’ve made it halfway through Will Durant’s Story of Civilizations, 11 volumes of which span 40 years of effort. Toynbee’s effort similarly spans 40 years.
  2. I’m interested in the subject. History fascinates me. That wasn’t always the case. I remember in grade school thinking that history was pretty dull. That was because it was nothing more than names and dates. But in 5th grade, we studied early American history (Revolutionary War, etc.) and, living as I did in New England at the time, it came to life. The places were places I knew, and had been to. My perspective on history changed after that. I’ve also found, that very little that happens in the world today is new. There is often precedent for it in the past.
  3. I’m fascinated by the evolution of discovery. “Facts” change over time. This is true in science as our knowledge of a subject increases; it is also true in history as new information is uncovered, and new evidence (archeological, and otherwise) is located. In Malone’s biography of Jefferson, Malone was fairly adamant that Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemmings was little more than rumor, something that DNA and modern science proved him wrong about. Reading older works of history allows me to see this evolution in action.

Indeed, Toynbee makes this point explicit in his preface to the paperback edition of Volume 1:

The size of the work’s field has determined its length, and its unavoidable length has made it take a long time to write. The general plan of the work was put on paper in 1921; Volume 12 was published in 1961. The intervening forty years brought with them a number of changes, and these have left their mark on the text as this has been gradually written and published…

…The additions to past history that were made during the eventful forty years 1921-1961 are appreciable in their quantity, and significant in their effect, even when viewed in the perspective of the preceding 5000 years of human history. They make the retrospective picture of these last 5000 years look perceptibly different, as seen from the standpoint of the year 1961, from the picture as seen from the standpoint of 1921

A Study of History, Vol 1, p. viii

It is this last point that fascinates me particularly for two reasons: first, because it provides insight into how we learn about the pas; and second, because implicit within it is the knowledge that in the future, we may understand things differently with increasing knowledge and insight.

In the meantime, you can expect periodic updates on my progress through these volumes, slow though it may be.

Essays of E. B. White

I recently re-read Essays of E. B. White. Having done so, I am finally in agreement with those who call White the greatest essayist of the Twentieth century–at least of those that I have read. I returned to White in part to escape what seems to me a simpler time (a false notion, I’m sure, but it’s there nevertheless). What is it about White’s essays that so fill me with joy? In a biographical Afterword to the collection, Hal Hager quotes White himself with a reason:

“I discovered a long time ago,” White wrote in a letter, “that writing of the small things of the day, trivial matters of the hearth, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work I could accomplish with any serenity or grace.”

Writing today often feels like a race to make everything written seem the most important, most consequential thing out there. “Click bait” is but one symptom of this clamor for attention. It is a race fueled by clicks, views, and impressions, more the coinage of the Internet than Bitcoin will ever be. Sturgeon’s rule still applies: most of what is written is trivial (I am no exception), and much of it is poorly written. White’s writing provides me with a safe harbor from this clamor. His writing helps to quiet the mind, and slow the pace of life. In “Home-Coming,” for instance, White writes about his drive from New York to Maine, and how the scenery has changed over the years. He observed:

Steering a car toward home is a very different experience from steering a car toward a rostrum, and if our findings differ, it is not that we differed greatly in powers of observation, but that we were headed in different emotional directions.

Our drives to Florida and Maine reflect some of this need to slow down the pace of life. And there is a different experience driving home than to another destination that I don’t experience with other modes of transport, particularly airplanes. Up in the sky, I am too far removed from the world to see the details I see on the highways.

White’s essays show that it is the pace of life that changes, but the familiar remains the same. Writing about a hurricane in “The Eye of Edna,” White comments on the fever and frenzy of radio weather broadcasts:

It became evident to me after a few fast rounds with the radio that the broadcasters had opened up on Edna awfully far in advance, before she had come out of her corner, and were spending themselves at a reckless rate.

Inhabitants of any region that receives snow will recognize this behavior today, in a time when satellites and weather models can better predict the path of storms–and yet the weather reports still open up far in advance of the storm.

White can be prophetic. In his classic essay, “Here is New York,” he was frighteningly prophetic in his vision of how destructible such a dense city as New York has become. He’s not talking about fire, either.

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.

White finds joy in transportation. He laments the demise of the Model-T in “Farewell, My Lovely!” and while cars have improved dramatically in the decades since, with all kinds of innovations that simplify the act of driving, these same improvements have abstracted the simple mechanical basis of the automobile to the point where even a seasoned mechanic like my grandfather complained that he had difficulty working on the “newer” cars.

White waxes poetic over the joys of sailing (something still very simple and mechanical, but something that has grown increasingly expensive) in his essay, “The Sea and the Winds that Blow.” His essay “The Railroad” is a eulogy for what was once a majestic form of transportation. A similar eulogy is required today for the bygone days when airline travel was fun and original.

White’s essays provide me with an escape from everything that announces its self-importance. His language is careful, his tone casual, and his manner is always self-deprecating, but certain. In his essay on Don Marquis, White writes:

There are plenty of loud clowns and bad poets at work on papers today, but there are not many columnists adding to the belle lettres, and certainly there is no Don Marquis at work on any daily.

Nor is there, alas, another E. B. White.

What I Read in January 2019

I finished 6 books in January. Compared to last January, it’s a little better, as I read 6 books in January 2018. But compared to my monthly average for 2018–12 to 15 books per month–it seems disappointing. My main form on self-education and entertainment is reading. This is why I don’t watch much television, see movies, or play video games.

Except, this month, I did start playing a video game. As a mentioned in an earlier post, after reading Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier, I was fascinated by the concept behind the Witcher 3 game. I bought the complete edition for Xbox, and in the last two weeks of January, poured about 30 hours of my time into the game–30 hours that would have gone toward reading.

My Audible listening time, October – January

My reading has been down, generally, since October, but December was more of an exception because we were on vacation for nearly 3 weeks. January’s decline (I had barely 70 hours of audiobook listening time) was due entirely to Witcher 3. I’m hoping to get back on track in February. Here’s what I read in January.

The Renaissance by Will Durant (#849)

The Renaissance

I first learned of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiography in the mid-1990s. The 11 volumes seemed daunting then, but it wasn’t until I read the first volume that I fell in love with Durant’s style of writing. Since then, I have been slowly making my way through each volume. I completed the longest volume, The Age of Faith, last year.

Volume 5, The Renaissance, covers the Italian renaissance in Durant’s unique and fascinating voice. He is the only writer for whom I can tolerate descriptions of sculpture and pottery because he is so clearly excited about his subject.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier (#850)

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

This was the book that led me to Witcher 3 and is therefore directly responsible for me getting through 6 books in January in stead of 10 or 12. But this was a good book. Video games are difficult to make, and stories occasionally appear about the conditions under which developers work. Schreier interviewed staff at 10 gaming companies and studios in an effort to answer if these conditions were the exception or the rule. It would seem they are the latter. This is a great look at the inside world of video game development. But be careful: it may lead you to hours of unplanned time in front of the Xbox.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (#851)


This book kept popping up in various lists and a friend of mine was reading it so I decided to give it a try as well. I read most of the book on an airplane to Los Angeles and it was an interesting read. It covers a lot of ground that has been covered in more detail in other books I’ve read.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the observation Harari makes about the ever-increasing pace of life, as passage of which I wrote about earlier this month.

Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (#852)

Soul of an Octopus

This book may have been an Audible Daily Deal, I can’t recall exactly. But it’s whimsical title caught my eye, and I actually enjoyed the book. Sy Montgomery has a delightful writing style, and her enjoyment in exploring the octopuses comes through clearly.

Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White (#853)

Essays of E. B. White

There are some books that act upon me as the sun acts upon Superman: the books recharge me, and especially my creative energies. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is an example of a novel that does this for me. Essays of E.B. White is collection of nonfiction essays that does the same for me. I read this book last January, and re-read it last month as a way of re-charging those creative batteries. Of the 31 essays in the book there are quite a few standouts:

  • “Home-Coming” about driving into Maine after being away for a time.
  • “The Eye of Edna” which goes to show that the media hysteria surrounding weather events is nothing new.
  • “Here Is New York” which is E. B. White’s classic panegyric to New York City.
  • “Farewell, My Lovely” which is a combination love-letter and Dear John letter to the Model-T Ford.
  • “Once More to the Lake” is about returning to a childhood spot in Maine with White’s own son.
  • “The Sea and the Winds that Blow” shows White’s passion for sailing and the sea, and the occasional need to be alone.
  • “The Railroad” is a eulogy to the once mighty mode of transportation.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre (#854)

The Spy and the Traitor

This book had been sitting in my to-read pile for a while. What a book! It is the story of Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian spy secretly working for the British as a double-agent. The first two thirds of the book builds up Oleg’s story, and provides a fascinating picture of how spy craft really works.

The last third of the book is a James Bond-like race out of Moscow as we follow Gordievsky on his harrowing escape from Soviet Russia. This was a true nail-biter, and despite being tired, I kept reading late into the night to find out what would happen next.

I’m hoping to be more productive on the reading front in February. It’s a short month, so I will be happy if I can get 10 books read in February. Among the books I plan to read this month are:

  • Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls
  • The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy
  • Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams by Michael D’Antonio
  • Octavia Gone: An Alex Benedict Novel by Jack McDevitt (this doesn’t come out until May but Jack has kindly sent me an ARC and I can’t wait to read it.)
  • Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix
  • Growing Up by Russell Baker
  • Arkwright by Allen Steele

This list is, of course, subject to the Butterfly Effect of Reading.

An Article A Day…

I sometimes look at reading the way I look at eating. There are meals (novels, nonfiction books), and snacks (articles, essays, short stories). I enjoy snacks (short form reading) as much as the meals. I subscribe to a bunch of magazines and always look forward to reading through the articles in them each month–but rarely manage to do so. This week, I was staring at a pile of these magazines that have accumulated on my desk, wondering if it would ever be possible to get through them.

Like a person trying to eat better, I’ve tried a number of strategies over the years to digest these magazines: pick one day a week to do nothing but magazines reading; or one weekend a month. Read magazines while waiting for other things (standing in lines, sitting in waiting rooms, etc.) None of those have worked.

It occurred to me that I have been approaching the problem the wrong way. One of the things that I enjoy about short form writing is its brevity. You can read something interesting in small bite, rather than a mouthful. With books, I never want to stop reading, which can get tiring. With short pieces, I can read an entire piece in a short period of time and have a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment all rolled up in one. But I have been approaching this snack reading as if it was a complete meal: carve out time to get through an entire issue of Scientific American, or Harper’s in a single sitting. That isn’t the point of this type of reading.

Yesterday, I began a new strategy: read one article every day. I look at this as a snack between meals. The task seems much less daunting that way, and accomplishes nearly the same as it would if I was able to carve out the time I needed to read all of the magazines I get each month.

I did a little math to verify this. I subscribe to Scientific American, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Harper’s, Time, Atlantic Monthly, Outside, Wired, and Down East Magazine. Nine altogether. There are 4-5 feature articles per magazine on average, which makes for a total of about 36 – 45 articles per month or 430 – 540 articles per year. I don’t read every article in every issue of every magazine. But at one article per day, I’d manage to read 365 articles per year, which allows me to read between 68-85% of all of the feature articles I get in a given year. Far more than I’ve managed so far.

I started this yesterday. While at my son’s basketball practice, I read “The Bible Hunters” by Robert Draper in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic. (Very interesting, actually, you should check it out.) Of course, I have to have some way of keeping track of this, and so I started a brand new Field Notes notebook just for jotting down what article I read each day. I chose one of the Lunacy edition notebooks–because maybe my idea is a little loony. After finishing the article I marked it as #1 in the notebook. I think there is just enough room to fit a year’s worth of entries in a single notebook.

This is one of those ideas that I’m excited to try, but only time will tell if it works in practice. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I’m off to read article #2. The hard part now is choosing which article read next.